Driftwood The Musical – Theatre Review

Starting as a family memoir; ‘DRIFTWOOD: Escape and Survival Through Art’ written by Eva de Jong-Duldig, Driftwood The Musical returns to Melbourne at Chapel Off Chapel for its 2023 season.

Following Karl Duldig, his wife Slawa Horowitz-Dulgig, and their daughter Eva, the musical tells the story of their escape from Europe, from the Nazi regime, and its persecution of the Jewish people.

Created by Tania de Jong AM, adapted for the stage by Jane Bodie, with songs written by Anthony Barnhill, the already powerful source material elicits so much more emotion. Under the direction of Gary Abrahams, Driftwood is an almost faultless production, grappling a story with unbearable heartbreak, but also with the bright light of hope constantly peeking through.

Adapting anything, to be a stage production is enough of a task and Jane Bodie’s adaptation has evidently given the source material a great deal of care. Spanning over four decades, I never found Driftwood’s narrative to become muddled. The way it displayed its passage of time through the use of costuming and hair was more than enough.

The set of Driftwood by Jacob Battista, is designed based on Slawa’s invention of the collapsible umbrella, both in the shape of the stage and the floorboards. Walking in and seeing the stage design, I instantly had an understanding of the characters and story that about to be told. As the story unfolded, Battista’s set remains still, and yet, I felt like it was changing. As the events in the story grew darker, and Slawa and Karl’s lives began to unravel, the set too went through subtle alterations, enhancing the theme of loss that runs throughout Driftwood.

The cast of Driftwood is comprised of five talented performers, through the darker parts of the narrative each performer’s abilities were all tested. A personal stand out for me were Anton Berezin as Karl Duldig and Michaela Burger as Slawa’s sister Rella. The dynamism that both bring to the stage is impressive, providing duality from the biggest laughs and tears, to deep sadness and relief.

Portraying Eva is New Zealander, Bridget Costello having superhuman vocal abilities and an acting performance that saw her playing Eva at the age of 18 to the point of the publication of her book.

Playing several roles, Nelson Gardner has some of the most beautiful moments in the musical when he is playing, Ignaz (Karl’s brother) and Marcel (Rella’s husband). Taking on more than one role can mean that some actors to get lost in their roles. But this was not the case with Gardner. During Act Two there comes a heartbreaking moment with Ignaz and Gardner’s performance was so beautiful I had to hold back tears. I even turned to my partner and could evidently see that he was moved in the same way I was. His acting in this scene was the highlight of the entire show and will stay with me long after. The other performance that came close was Berezin’s interactions with Costello, also during Act Two. The father daughter moments are really touching. This entire production must be so personal to Tania de Jong AM who also plays Slawa and has the most powerful singing voice. I can’t imagine what a triumph this show is for her family’s legacy.

The emotional weight in Driftwood is spread out perfectly throughout. The strongest songs are featured in Act One, ranging from originals written by Anthony Barnhill to traditional Jewish songs. Some of these songs are clumsy in parts, not quite fitting where they are placed and the harmonies weren’t always perfect, but it can’t be doubted that Barnhill composes a beautiful song. I was dealt numerous emotional curveballs in Act One but this wouldn’t compare to Act Two, and as a loud crier, I was trying to contain my wails as to not drown out the beautiful performances that touched my heart.

Driftwood The Musical is a true story that adds a more human layer to the atrocities committed in Europe during World War II, and with the current world climate leading where it is, its crucial that stories like this are told. Driftwood is incredibly moving and is a musical that I’m so honoured to have witnessed.

Driftwood The Musical is now playing at Chapel Off Chapel in Melbourne until the 20th of May before it heads to Sydney and then abroad.
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Photography by James Terry.

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